One hundred years ago today the great writer Irwin Shaw was born. About a year ago, I spent a couple of weeks with his Short Stories, Five Decades. It reminded me of when I first started writing about 25 years ago. I became obsessed with his short story “The Eighty-Yard Run.” I read it again and again. It tells the story of a man’s life from one day in high school that he looks back on as the pinnacle: an eighty-yard touchdown run during football practice. It is perceptive that Shaw used this example. In one way, anyone can understand that doing this would make a boy feel very good about himself. Life is like that: relatively little things can put on shine on life. But another way of looking it is that it is pathetic. It is high school and it isn’t even a game — just a practice.
All of Shaw’s work is filled with unspoken truths. No one ever seems quite able to communicate what they think and feel — even to themselves. Everyone is left with the vague sadness that you think life is really all about when you are young. Of course, as you get older, you learn first hand that this is exactly what life is about. The one thing we all share is regret about everything. Shaw conveys this idea with an expansive collection of characters and their stories.
Shaw is kind of a guys’s writer. Most of his characters are men. He still does an excellent job with female characters but he never provides the kind of depth that he often does for his men. There are certainly similarities with Hemingway — especially at his best in The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea. But Hemingway is notably weaker. His female characters speak of a man who only ever had much contact with women through prostitutes. And there is a great deal of insecurity in his work, as though he were trying to prove he was a real man. With Shaw, there is no such problem — men just are what they are without editorializing.
Shaw has also written a lot of plays and novels. He got his start writing for radio. I can’t speak to any of that. He had some notable popular successes as with his novel Rich Man, Poor Man. I recommend checking out his short stories.
There are a few other notable birthdays today. Peter Stone would have been 83 today. He was a playwright who also wrote some notable screenplays like Charade. Joanne Woodward is 83 today. She starred in one of my favorite movies, They Might Be Giants. And Elizabeth Taylor would have been 81 today. She was known for being Elizabeth Taylor.
Ralph Nader was born in 1934 on this day. Chelsea Clinton, 1980. Peter De Vries, himself quite a good writer, was born on this day in 1910. He wrote some fun novels.
Oh yeah: some guy named John Steinbeck was born on this day in 1902. I’ve heard that he wrote some novels or something. “Angry Grapes”? “Bitter Prunes”? Something like that.